First, before your head explodes, I’m not suggesting that you don’t read good books.
Heck, reading good books is probably a big part of what made you want to be a writer. You’ve spent your life voraciously reading ‘em, right? So you know firsthand that when you’re lost in a compelling novel you’re transported to another world, and when the novel ends and you’re delivered back into our own dusty world, you see things a little differently. Or maybe a lot differently.
Stories change us. They inspire us, they give us insight into what makes people tick. Including ourselves. That’s their job. I’m not speaking metaphorically. I mean that literally: we’re wired to turn to story for useful intel. But, ironically, there is one kind of intel it’s very, very hard to gather from reading a great book. And that is information on how to write one.
Why? Because the first job of a good story is to instantly (and chemically) put your analytical brain to sleep. Here’s how a good story grabs us: it makes us curious. What’s going on here? What’s going to happen next? That curiosity triggers a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine that’s kinda like a chloroform soaked rag when it comes to figuring out how the story is working its magic on you.
But here’s the real killer: it doesn’t feel that way. It feels as if we can see exactly how the writer is doing it. After all, it’s right there in front of us in black and white: the beautiful sentences, the great metaphors, that luscious prose, the fresh quirky voice. It’s so easy to mistake the beauty of the delivery system for the actual content it’s delivering — a story.
I want to break in here and say, in no uncertain terms, that I am not saying that beautiful writing isn’t important. What I am saying is that beautifully written novels – like all novels — get their power from the story they’re telling. Great writing heightens it, deepens it, and makes it more memorable, more compelling, and more filled with what feels like magic. But make no mistake, it’s not the words themselves that are doing it, it’s the “it” – the story – that the words are bringing to life.
So, given that, when it comes to improving your writing, is there a way that reading great books can help? You bet. But it’s hard. First you have to make a “Ulysses bargain” with your brain. Here’s what I mean: In The Odyssey , they’re about to sail around the island of the Sirens, and Ulysses knows if he hears them, he’s going to be seduced into sailing smack into the rocks. So he comes up with a brilliant solution: he has his crew lash him to the mast, and tells them to ignore him, no matter what he says (‘cause he knows damn well he’s going to order them to head full steam ahead into that good night).
That’s exactly what you have to do. As a reader you want to sail away into the story. As a writer trying to master your craft, you want to see the seams, the way things were put together, the way it was done. That means lashing yourself to the mast, and approaching the book in a very specific way at a very specific time in the writing process.
And since the brain doesn’t learn by thinking about things — it learns by experiencing them – I turned to Jennie Nash , author of four novels and three memoirs, and asked her about her experience when it comes to reading other writers’ novels to help with her own writing process. Her answers offer insightful advice on how to approach a great book and, rather than simply fall under its spell, learn from it. Here goes:
Lisa Cron: First, let’s get a little background. I know you’re working on a new novel right now. Where are you in the process?
Jennie Nash: I’ve barely begun. I mean, I have an idea for a story – just a glimmer of a situation, a tiny sense of the people who may or may not be involved. It’s like I stuck the seed in the dirt and put some water on it, but that’s about all. The sun may not even be shining yet.
LC: So you’re still working out your premise. That is early. I’m very interested in what you told me about how you pulled three books off your bookshelf to help you start moving the process forward. Is that something you always do?
JN: Yes. This will be my fifth novel, and I always turn to other books at the start of the process. Sometimes they’re books that I need for some specific point of research – like, for my last book, Perfect Red, I needed to know what was the cosmetics industry like in 1952 – but most of the time, they’re books that at first glance have little to do with what I think I’m writing.
LC: So how do you choose them? Why do you read them?
JN: There’s usually some subconscious reason I start thinking about another writer’s book when I’m trying to start a story, and my job is to try to make that process conscious. So with the novel I’m working on now, for example, the first book I thought about was Girl in Hyacinth Blue  by Susan Vreeland. It’s a gorgeous novel about a whole chain of people who bought and sold and lost and gained a fictional Vermeer painting. I first read it about six or seven years ago – maybe more – but when I started to think about this new story I wanted to tell, that book immediately leapt to mind.
At first I thought it was because the book is about a similar topic to the one I’m considering. My story is possibly maybe about a work of art – a manuscript, actually — that gets passed from hand to hand. So I thought that was the reason Girl in Hyacinth Blue called to me. I assumed that’s what I should pay attention to – Vreeland’s tone around the art, her handling of the topic. But what emerged for me as I read was actually not that at all. What I began to pay attention to was structure. Vreeland does something very unusual structurally in this book. She tells the story backwards, starting in what would be the story present and going back to where the story began. It’s incredibly powerful. Will I tell my story backwards? Maybe. I’m not sure. I have no idea. But it’s in my head now — how I could do that if I wanted to.
LC: So while you read, you weren’t lured in by Vreeland’s writing, by her story?
JN: It was a constant temptation because not only is the story compelling, she has luminous prose and unbelievably authentic characterizations. It would have been so easy to let myself get lost in it.
LC: It sounds like a good rule of thumb might be: When you’re reading a great novel to help you with your own writing process, if you find yourself really enjoying it, stop!
JN: Exactly. I really had to fight it. My goal was to pick up only the thread of structure – of how she did it – and follow it, ignoring everything else as best as I could. It’s kind of like looking at a painting and making yourself only look at the yellow, or listening to a piece of music and only listening to the bass.
LC: Did the Vreeland book help you decide about your own structure?
JN: Sort of. I mean, it got me thinking hard about the different structures I could choose. I held the “tell it backwards” idea in my mind, and then I turned to another book – Sarah’s Key  by Tatiana de Rosnay. I hadn’t read it, but three people mentioned it to me when I told them about my new idea – they’d say, “It sounds like Sarah’s Key,” or “It kind of reminds me of Sarah’s Key.” When three people mention a book, I don’t ignore it! So I read it. It’s the story of a contemporary woman who realizes she has a personal connection to a very dark day of the Jewish holocaust. It’s a harrowing story, brilliantly told.
LC: Was it even harder to not be swept away by a great book that you hadn’t read before?
JN: Yes. Talk about a dopamine surge (as I know you would say, Lisa!) I had to fight extra hard because I was dying to know what happened next. It would have been really easy to get diverted by that. Instead I kept my focus — I was on high alert for what was happening with the structure. De Rosnay switches back and forth from the contemporary to the historical story, in short, sharp little bursts. The contemporary story is actually told in the first person, and the historical story is told in the third. About two-thirds of the way through, the two stories meld together.
LC: So you were looking at the thread of the structure again.
JN: That’s right. I was trying it on for size, I guess, seeing if my story would be served by this structure.
LC: What did you read next?
JN: One day a book popped into my head and I just had to get my hands on it. I could picture the spine, the cover, the illustrations. It was The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler  – a children’s book I probably hadn’t thought about in ten years.
LC: I love that book! I read it to my kids. I can still picture the scene of the brother and sister taking an early morning bath in chilly water of the fountain in the restaurant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art– which is now gone.
JN: It’s a fabulous book. I read it to my kids, too. We loved it. I searched all over the house, and was about to start getting boxes down from the garage, when I found it on the bookshelf in the bedroom of my 17 year old – yellowed, a little beat up.
I started reading it, knowing at this point that what I was looking for was structure – and what I found there blew me away: the story of the kids who run away to the Met is told by Mrs. Frankweiler, the old lady who helps them solve the mystery at the end of the book. If someone had asked that question on a test – who narrated The Mixed Up Files? – I would have sworn up and down it was the girl who planned the whole getaway. I would have bet big money! But it wasn’t. It was this old lady.
That was the final thing I needed to solve my structure problem. I could suddenly see my new story – who it was told by, how it was told, and why. I think my story needs to be told by an old lady who helps a much younger woman solve a mystery related to a missing manuscript.
LC: That’s fabulous – the story itself began to come clear as you “ran it through” the structure you found in other novels. Novels that really, are very different than what yours will be.
What’s more, you just illustrated something crucial: when we’re lost in a story we don’t see how it’s done. Because I had the exact same experience — I would have sworn the novel was narrated by the main character, twelve year old Claudia. In fact, I want to go back and see, because it so upends what I remember.
One quick aside when it comes to just this sort of making the “invisible” visible: writers, take a look at just about any book written in the third person asking yourself this: how is the writer getting the POV character’s thoughts onto the page? It’s usually done so deftly that if someone asked you, you’d swear they didn’t put the characters thoughts onto the page at all. But they do. All the time. It’s where the story lives. Speaking of which, Jennie, having figured out the structure are you ready to start writing?
JN: Not by a long shot. Structure is only a tiny piece of what I have to work out. I still have to figure out what the story is, exactly, and what time frame it covers, where it starts and where it goes, and what the point is — all the things you’re always telling writers they have to know before they start writing. But that seed of a story that was pushed down into the dirt? I feel like it has some roots, now. I feel like the sun is shining on it – the sun that streams in from these other writers’ books.
LC: Thanks, Jennie, for shedding light on how great books can help writers bring their own stories to life. You’ve brilliantly illuminated the crossroad where creativity and intuition meet the hard work of consciously drilling down to the story you want to tell.
What about you? Has a great book ever helped you with something very specific in your writing process? How did you resist the story’s siren song?
Photo by Scott Feldstein  via Flickr